Saturday, April 21, 2018

A Sunset Hike

A few weeks ago I told you about an evening at Pepperwood Preserve, a nature preserve in our area. Since we are members of the preserve we are sometimes invited to special members-only events that can be talks, art gallery openings or hikes. The talks are always very interesting and every time I go away with something new I have learned.

Pepperwood burned during the October fires which motivated the staff (wonderful people, by the way) to held a series of fire related events. Most of them were highly informative talks with footage from their wildlife cameras that survived the fire. This footage showed us the sheer power of this fire, how fast and furious it was. But it also showed that it didn't take that much time for life to come back. Within two days rabbits appeared on the camera, followed by deer, a bobcat, coyotes and finally a black bear. I don't recall seeing a cougar but I'm pretty sure they have returned as well.

A few weeks ago we were invited to a sunset hike under the guidance of a Native American. Clint McKay is Wappo, Pomo and Wintun and Pepperwood's Cultural Consultant and Chair of the Native Advisory Council. He led us down the hill toward the charred trees in the photo above.

Everywhere we could see the scars of the fire. Black trunks, fallen trees, stumps of tree that had to be felled. The fallen trunks on the ground were interesting since we could clearly see where the fire did its damage. And it was also beautiful.

But among all the devastation there were new signs of life. New branches grew out of the charred soil, wildflowers reached for the light. It was undeniable that nature was bouncing back.

Then Clint started to talk. He asked us to think about the word "land management". What does management mean? If you're a manager, you're the boss and things have to be done your way, right?

Are we humans really manager of the land? Of nature?

Isn't it the other way round? Nature does whatever it wants and the only thing we can do is react. And prepare if we're smart.

Native Americans have had a different understanding of nature, the land and wildfires. They didn't manage the land, but they worked with nature. They cut away underbrush, started controlled burns and thus enabled nature to do its own thing. California has always had wildfires, it's a natural part of this landscape. Wildfires are important, and if people wouldn't interfere so much they wouldn't end in such a disaster like last October.

Then he started to talk about the Seventh Generation - and I'm not referring to the cleaning supplies company but to the Seventh Generation Principle that is based on an ancient Iroquois philosophy. It basically says that the decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future. Seven generations are 175 years (one generation is 25 years).

This was the moment when Clint had to fight his own emotion. 175 years back from now was the mid 19th century, a time when white people took over the land (stolen from the Native Americans, really) and Native Americans were forced back on small reservations. This is when the thoughtful work with the land ended... and we're seeing the devastating results now.

We certainly did here in Sonoma County.

Perhaps this is a bit too black and white, but I do think there is a lot of truth in this thought. And I don't want to judge here but keeping an open mind. This principle sure makes a lot of sense to me.

The sun was deep on the horizon when we had climbed back up the hill and the views were fantastic. Looking across Pepperwood to the next hill we could easily tell where the fire had raged. Just look at the trees and you can see without a doubt.

While this is a big fat scar that probably will be visible for some time we know that nature will recover from this, much faster than we do. I hope that we have learned something from these fires and do more to clear underbrush and have controlled fires. Those fires also help some long dormant seed pods to burst open and give us some stunning wildflowers. Just like we're experiencing right now.

We gathered at the ridge to the west, enjoying the warm light of the slowly setting sun. At the request of his wife, Clint led us into a Native American prayer in the Wappo language (he also speaks some Pomo). Even though we didn't understand the words we felt the emotion. Then he and his wife turned around, facing the sun and started a Native chant. It was an easy tune, and we soon followed them chanting together while the color of the light became warmer.

It was extremely moving. I had to fight back tears.

Almost everybody gathered at the Dwight Center for wine and chocolate afterwards, but the Geek and I spent a few more solitary minutes on the ridge before we joined the others.

Did I mention there was wine?

Monday, April 9, 2018

Six Months Later

It's been exactly six months when in the very early hours of Monday, October 9th 2017, we woke up to what would become the most destructive wildfire in the history of California. The week that followed was the worst week in my life and was utterly life changing for so many. 5300 homes and residences were destroyed in Santa Rosa alone. The devastation afterwards still leaves me speechless.

By now, most of the burned sites are cleared and the debris removal is almost complete. Where once used to be homes, trees and gardens is replaced by flat, cleared sites. Some trees are still standing, hoping that they might come back to life. All in all it's a pretty sad sight.

The big debris removal trucks are seen every day, and last month when one of those trucks drove down the hill (too fast?) and its brakes failed there was a rather bad accident involving seven injuries and a fire. This happened at a site that was badly burned during the October fires and for some people it was a traumatic déjà vu.

Here you can see one of those trucks, and the area behind it is our old neighborhood. The red x marks the spot where our old house used to be (I'm still so relieved that we moved a few years before the fire). We have heard that the landlord is not going to rebuild.

He is not alone. Many people have found out that they have been under insured or rebuilding will be just too expensive. Many lots have gone up for sale. Other people, neighbors in a street, have come together and want to rebuild together to keep costs lower. So far, only one home - in the Coffey Park neighborhood - has been erected since the builders were able to use the existing foundation of the house. This is not possible with most houses since the foundations were removed as part of the government-funded debris removal. However, even if it's only one home, it's a sign of hope. But still there are not even 200 building permits being currently processed since most people are still figuring out how much money they get from their insurance.

Six months later they still struggle. Some insurances have been better than others. It gave me a lot of pause. There also is a lot of price gouging, rents have gone up astronomically and the housing problems we had before the fires have become a serious housing crisis. People affected by the fire have moved away because they weren't able to find a place to live that they could actually afford.

24 people in Sonoma County (43 in all the affected counties together) lost their lives in the fires. For the past six months there has been a debate whether the county could have done more in terms of warning the population (a resounding YES). Officials have resigned over the decision not to activate the emergency system (why oh why?). While everybody agrees that no one could have been prepared for a natural disaster of such dimensions it is also clear that serious mistakes have been made (and hopefully we will learn from them).

Many people have PTSD in various degrees. When the county decided to make steep cuts to the mental health services the outcry was fierce and somehow the money for keeping up these services was found. Mental health issues have increased - I can see that in my school, and as someone said "we're not out of the woods yet" when it comes to the emotional toll of the fires.

The scars in our community will be visible for a very long time.

Nature, however, is bouncing back. Right after the fires the hills were charred and there are still a lot of burned trees in the landscape (they appear orange-brown and black in the photos).

However, since wildfire is important and necessary for California's nature, everything is coming back to life. There are beautiful wildflowers, and plants that need fire for their seedpods to open are making a big return . I think we're in for a huge gift by nature. Looking around the hills and mountains you can clearly see where the fires burned and destroyed, but you can also see all the new signs of life.

Everywhere there are still the "thank you" signs for our first responders, and I have a feeling that they will be around for a while. These men and women were working tirelessly in some of our darkest hours. My respect for them is immense.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

An Image and Its Story - March 2018

Looking through my photos that I took in March is pretty pathetic. Before this past week, actually the last four days of March, there isn't a single image I took with my "big" camera. Obviously I was too lazy or busy (or both) and completely lacked the inspiration for any halfway decent photography. In my defense I have to say that my work at the high school currently wears me out, and I'm not even there full time! By now we fully feel the aftermath of the October fires - which comes at no surprise when 10% of the school population has lost their homes. We deal with behavioral issues, lack of motivation, drug and other substance abuse. It drains our energy and everybody seems to be stressed out. I'm often just tired when I come home, take a nap and then start preparing for my Saturday German class. There isn't much left in terms of going out with my camera - even though I know that it probably would work wonders!

But - suddenly Kaefer was here for her spring break, and last Wednesday I went back with her to Davis and spent a few days with her. I took my camera with me and used it, too! Oh the joy!!!

However, the photo I have selected this time wasn't taken in Davis but yesterday evening - literally one of the last photos I took during the month of March.

What is this? you might ask. Is she that drunk?

I can assure you, I was not.

We are members of a nature preserve called Pepperwood which is located quite secluded in the hills of Sonoma County. It's one of the most beautiful locations in our area and not open to the public (hence the membership). We have been members since Kaefer did an internship here back in the summer of 2015. We enjoy informative talks, beautiful exhibitions, nature hikes - and wine. For almost every event they bring in a local winery, which is a win-win for both the winery and Pepperwood (I don't think we are the only ones who some time after each event visit those wineries and buy a couple bottles of the delicious wines).

Yesterday we were at the opening of an exhibition about the cradles and baskets of Native Americans, followed by a nature hike in the Preserve lead by a Native American couple (I will probably blog about that some time later). Of course there was a lot of talk about the wildfires and how important they are for nature, how Native Americans have always used fire as a tool and it therefore never got that destructive (until the white people took over with disastrous consequences). Right before sunset we all came together at the ridge for a Native American prayer and chant - to say that it was moving would be an understatement.

And then - there was wine and chocolate at the Dwight Center. The sun had set by then, the sky painted wild colors, and we were just setting our glasses on the crooked wall when I noticed a last ray of the sun reflected in a window of a lone farm house across the hill. It goes without saying that I simply had to take a few pictures of this.

This was the start of my spring break. No school until Saturday when I will return to teaching at the German School (which is the job I love anyway). On our way back home we witnessed an extraordinarily beautiful rise of the full moon - what a beautiful finale to a wonderful day.